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Time: 2 am. Date: 23rd August 2002. Location: Dalugama, Sri Lanka
My mother is crying silently. I fight back tears because I must hold myself together. Inside me, I am breaking apart. I have to be the brave soul that takes charge now.
I call my aunt, my mother’s sister. At dawn, she arrives with her sons, my first cousins. My sister arrives with her husband. Our neighbour, Linton, who was with me in the vehicle when my father passed away, stays with me.
I feel helpless because I do not know Sri Lanka’s system of organising funerals. It is not as straightforward as in Australia, my adopted country. Funeral directors in Sri Lanka only take care of embalming, the coffin and its transport. The family must take care of releasing the body to them and arranging church and burial services.
I have had no trial runs in dealing with a death. I learn quickly that the first thing I must do is get a death certificate. A coroner will issue it at an inquest in the hospital where my father’s body lies. A policeperson from my local police outpost is required. That cop will certify that my father’s sudden death is not suspicious.
Sri Lankan police do not know the art of serving people. They are a species of their own. My cousins, peddling their influence, arrange through one of their contacts for a policeman to attend the inquest. Nothing is possible in Sri Lanka without influence or contacts.
I do not have the skill of engaging locals, not having lived in this goddam place for over twenty-five years. I feel helpless. I am a refugee here. All these dramas while my father’s body is lying in a morgue in the hospital. He is alone. I should be with him. I want to see him again. I am broken inside. I cannot mourn my loss. Instead, I am a logistic machine now.
Time: 7 am. Date: 2 August 2002. Location: Paliyagoda, Sri Lanka
I am driven to the local police station in the morning. The station is nothing like in Australia. The policemen do not look at me. They do not know what citizen service is. Antony, my sister’s husband, accompanies me, and enters the station that looks like a fortress. Half an hour later, a cop comes out. He sits in the front seat of our vehicle. We are driving to the hospital. Antony chats with the cop. The conversation is patronising towards the cop. That is what the damned cops in Sri Lanka expect. He is not concerned about my pain. Instead, he thinks that he is doing me a favour. I listen to him but lack the skills to engage him. I think of my father lying in that cold room, all alone.
I am told the coroner would arrive whenever. There are no waiting areas for the public. We stand outside. The cop asks to have breakfast. I am expected to feed him at an eatery. We sit at a table. Breakfast and snacks are served. The cop is feeding himself. I cannot eat anything. I am hollow inside. The cop expects me to pay. He thinks he is doing me a favour. I am of service to him, not the other way around. He does not care about my pain. For him, it is about getting the maximum benefit out of me.
Waiting at the hospital for the coroner, I see a man with two small children. He is sobbing. His kids, two little boys, are also crying. I am curious why. His young wife has passed away. The police refuse to hand over the body until a bribe is paid. I am fucking furious. I want to pay the police and release this helpless man to grieve for his wife and to deal with his calamity. I am angry with Sri Lanka police who live off people’s agonies. These police fucktards are bloodthirsty mongrels.
The coroner arrives. The coroner asks questions from the cop. I sit watching the drama and rituals. The coroner signs off a death certificate. Now I want to rush to a funeral home to arrange my father’s funeral logistics. Instead, I am supposed to drop the cop to the police station first, for he has been ‘benevolent’ to me. I am his servant. In the vehicle, he asks for Rupees 2000, which I am ready to part with. Lankan police know to live off its people’s miseries. This is not a time for my morals. I want my father back, whatever it takes.
We head to the funeral home now. They examine the death certificate. I agree to whatever they dictate. Money is not the issue. They ask me to return to the hospital mortuary and wait for them.
The workers from the funeral home come in a van. In a short while, they take my father and put his body in their van, in open view of me, with little regard that they are holding a human. I touch my father’s body. It is cold. I break inside. The workers have no care for my feelings. They take him like they are taking an object in broad daylight.
Time: noon. Date: 23rd August 2002. Location: Dalugama Sri Lanka
I go home. My mother and sister are crying. I have never seen my house like this. The house I built for my parents looks bare without my father. The family room has been emptied to receive my father’s body. I go to the bedroom, where I slept with my father less than a few hours ago. I feel responsible for his death. What if I did not spend the last week with him and stayed back in Sydney instead? I break down and cry alone, hiding my tears from my mother. My cousin, Kithsiri, comforts me with kind words. My aunt touches my head. I compose myself and come out.
The undertakers bring my father’s body in a coffin. It is placed in the family room. Behind the coffin is a cross, two candles and flowers. I stand next to his body. I keep staring at him. I cannot believe he is gone.
People come to our home to pay last respect. Relatives that I have not seen for ages turn up. Some are surprised that a boy who hung out with his father is now a grown-up man. After all these years, I cannot recognise some of them. My father’s friends, his best friend, who is also my godfather, turn up — my godmother, who is also my father’s cousin, visits. People come nonstop. Prayers are said during the day and night. My parent’s home is an open funereal home. Drinks are served for visitors. For the next three days, some three thousand people and about forty-five Christian clergy come to say farewell to my father. I knew my father was popular in many levels of society, but the extent of his popularity and connectedness baffles me.
I keep a stoic front, being brave in front of everyone. My mother, dressed in black and grey, stands beside her lifelong partner. Tears flow from her. I have never seen my mother like that. Two days later, my kid brother turns up, having travelled for the last forty-eight hours. I am brave for him. He is always composed. Out of my father’s children, he lived mostly with my parents. He must be feeling it more than me but is not showing it. He does not give his sorrow away.
My sister’s husband arranges the micro logistics. He orders white sand to be laid on the road to the church. Black flags are hoisted in our street. He prints handbills depicting my father, announcing his death. They are stuck all over my home village. On lamp posts, on walls, everywhere. I am not for these things. My father was not one to seek publicity. He was a simple man. I am aghast that my father’s image is plastered everywhere. But I give up because that’s what people in Sri Lanka do. But I pay for these things, customs, and things my inner soul rejects.
I meet the priest in the local church. A young boy, a little younger than my teenage son, brings him a cup of tea. The priest is rude to him. I cannot comprehend whether this man is the so-called representative of Christ. He is patronising to me, asking where I live in Australia while being rude to the helper boy. He praises my father. I don’t need any of this. The robed priest’s nasty response to that little kid is my shock. This is not a time to be righteous. I pay his fees for the religious service and church use.
A gravedigger is hired to dig up a grave at the local cemetery. I ask that my father be buried at his mother’s grave, the gravesite he showed me the day he died. When they dig my grandmother’s grave, they find the dress my grandmother wore intact when she was buried. It has survived all those years. I am called to her gravesite. I see the dress in black and white squares. I cannot believe that it has survived twenty-eight years. I remember her final dress vividly when she was buried when I was a teenager. I grieve for her too. I order them to bury that lovely dress in the grave and cover it with soil.
Time: 3 pm. Date: 26th August 2002. Location: Dalugama, Sri Lanka
With huge fanfare, attended by fifteen priests and nuns, my father’s coffin is taken in a hearse to the church. I walk immediately behind it with my mother, sister, and brother. At the church service, I read the church’s reading in Sinhala, my language growing up. I manage it despite my misgiving of being unable to read it as the locals do. I did it as a tribute to my father. He was a one-time president of this church’s parish council.
My father’s coffin is now taken to the cemetery. My brother in front and my cousins from both sides of the family behind us, eight of us in all, carrying it at the last mile. After many more prayers and everything else, like speeches, my father’s coffin is slowly lowered to its permanent resting place. My mother throws the first handful of dirt on the coffin and me next. We stay back until the gravesite is filled. Flowers and wreaths are laid around the site, and candles are lit. More prayers are offered. We come home at sunset, tired and without our father.
There is an alms-giving ceremony for poor people and relatives. Rice, dried fish, pumpkin and coconut sambal. It is Sri Lanka’s version of a wake. The funereal directors’ team hang about. I wonder why they are circling me. Then one of them asks for money. I am supposed to give them a tip. I give them whatever. It is a money-grabbing exercise for them.
Everyone leaves. It is just me, my mother, and my siblings. My sister stays back the night. My siblings and I talk through midnight about what our father did for us, recalling memories and episodes, some funny, and sitting on my parents’ bed. It is emotional but also therapeutic.
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